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In 1869, a one-armed college professor named John Wesley Powell set out with his half-mad brother and eight mountain men to do the unthinkable: run the uncharted Colorado River through the terra incognita of the Grand Canyon. Powell was an amateur scientist and something of a crackpot, his brother was described as “about as worthless a piece of furniture as could be found in a day’s journey,” and not a single crew member could have told you the difference between white water and the tap variety. Throw in four harbor boats totally unsuited to running rapids and you’ve got a recipe for total disaster. But times were different then, and Powell’s motley crew wasn’t about to let ignorance or incompetence deter it from braving one of the most ferocious stretches of white water in the world. In Down the Great Unknown, Edward Dolnick uses real journal accounts to flesh out the participants and reconstruct their ill-fated journey, a tragicomedy complete with shipwrecks, flash fires, starvation, mutiny, and death. Not to mention bad grub: their military-issue provisions were nearly inedible, and hunting “didn’t bring in enough food to make a grease spot,” as one hand grumbled. They were finally reduced to eating “mongrel fish” that must have tasted like a mixture of raw pork and pins. Fortunately, they had a 10-gallon cask of whiskey that one fore-sighted and thirsty crew member had thought to smuggle aboard. That anyone survived—stomach intact—is nothing short of a miracle. Dolnick reads at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. (Michael Little)